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Empathy: The Best Tool for Understanding Users

A user is: a consumer, a customer (or potential customer) and so much more because a user is a person. They’ve had experiences over the course of their lifetime that influence their thoughts, feelings and reactions about a given situation, product or service.

As a User Experience (UX) Design professional I’m expected to understand who the users are no matter how different their backgrounds might be from mine. It’s both my favorite part of my job and the most challenging. But, it’s important that I understand them because I’m their advocate, I’m the one that stands up and fights for features that will make them happy and to get rid of things that will frustrate them. For organizations that want to be more user focused it can be a daunting task to not only figure out who the users are, but what do they want? The best way to figure out what they want is by understanding them and the best way I’ve found to understand someone is to empathize with them.

Empathy is what connects us to other people and it’s a natural human condition. When we see someone hurt even if we’ve never experienced the same pain we can empathize with the fact that they’re hurting. We understand them because we can see the pain in their eyes and believe the pain in their voice. Equally, if we see someone that’s happy it’s considered something “infectious” and we empathize with their happiness even though whatever is making them happy may not be happening to us we acknowledge that they’re in their own bubble of happiness and something about that might make us a tad bit happy too.

One of the most common questions when it comes to empathy is “what’s the difference between empathy and sympathy”, well, with sympathy you understand what the other person is feeling because you’ve been through the same experience and had the same feelings yourself and with empathy you haven’t had the same experience and feelings.

For example, I tell you I just got a papercut and it made me cry:
Sympathy means you may have experienced a papercut that made you cry and  you feel bad for me
Empathy means that you believe me when I say the papercut made me cry, and you understand my pain
Apathy means you don’t believe me (or don’t care) when I say that the papercut made me cry


Well, apathy is how products end up getting made with features that frustrate users and empathy is the solution to that problem. The tough part about empathy is you have to set aside your own feelings and believe the other person’s feelings are 100% valid even if you disagree, but with practice it gets easier.

Empathy Do’s and Don’ts:
Do take time to define who your users are or who you want your product or service to target.
Don’t wait till the end of the project to start talking about your users, it gets harder to make changes later in a project.
Do ask more questions and get more feedback from users.
Don’t judge your users, remember their feelings are 100% valid even if you’ve never had the same experience as them.
Do make decisions around user feedback.
Don’t let feedback get stagnate, talk through it and decide what to do about it.
Do empower your team to advocate for the user.
Don’t limit user access to one person on the team, let anyone get user feedback at any time.
Do understand the context of a user’s problem.
Don’t explain away a user’s issue, fix it.

Remember to take feedback in stride. Products created in this day and age go through tons of iterations before release. If you need help implementing empathy in your business or gaining more user understanding, then I recommend talking with a UX Designer who has experience working with users to make better products and services. Adding empathy to your business can be challenging. While it’s not always easy, if you advocate for making users happy maybe they’ll tell all their friends.

About Jaylyn Dawson

Jaylyn Dawson is a User Experience Design Consultant with Statera’s Application Development team. Her background includes multiple disciplines of design including, but not limited to: interaction design, web design and graphic design. When she’s not currently doing design work or learning about new design things she can either be found in her kitchen baking something that smells delicious or can’t be found at all because she’s on yet another flight somewhere.